Public Participation

Power of Public Participation on Land Use Decisions

A new development proposal was recently submitted to your town’s planning board. The development is along the river and plans to create 60 acres of impervious land cover. The proposal triggers almost every local and state regulation: stream encroachment, wetlands, soil suitability, steep slopes, and endangered species.

Land use changes do not happen randomly. They are planned and outlined according to specific rules in your community and may involve state regulation approvals. If you have concerns about development issues in your community get involved! Depending on the issue, your concerns may be addressed through a few phone calls. However, for more complex projects, your participation may be more lengthy and valuable!

Getting Started

If you want to prevent development or insist the project properly manages the environmental constraints, it is important to become involved early. It is also important to be aware of your role and understand the process in order for your concerns to be heard and heard clearly. Here are six steps to effectively advocate your organization’s position.

1. Learn the Status of the Project
Contact the municipal clerk’s office or planning department to understand the review process and important deadlines for hearings and comments. Learn about the status of the Preliminary Site Plan Review. Ask about the role of the township, county and state in the necessary review and decisions on pertinent site plans and permits. Do not miss these opportunities to get involved.

2. Ask Questions
Informally discuss the project plans with the Chair of the municipal Environmental Commission or members of the Town Council, or Planning Board to understand their position on the project; to understand the review process; and to express your initial concerns. Here are some initial questions to consider.

  • How is the property it zoned? What is the minimal lot size 1-3 acres or more?
  • Will the proposed development be serviced with public sewer and/or water? Or will on site septic systems and wells be used?
  • Is the site in an area designated by the town within a conservation area or growth area?

3. Identify Partners: 
The support from neighbors, your town’s environmental commission, or other local groups will be beneficial to affect decisions. These allies can quickly help you become more familiar with the planning process and how best to proceed to articulate your concerns and recommendations.

  • Call your neighbors and friends – learn who may share your concerns and may be planning to get involved or attend upcoming meetings?
  • Organize an evening of cake and coffee at your home to discuss everyone’s concerns.
  • Maintain positive rapport with your township officials – that includes the township clerk, town council, mayor, planning board, and environmental commission members.
  • Obtain their contact information from the town clerk. Let them know that you have concerns about this project and request a meeting to discuss the issues.

4. Summarize the Information
Develop a synopsis of the project and your concerns early in the process. Explore the positive or negative effects of the project on your neighborhood, town or region – the environment and community. Prioritize the most important or serious aspects and clarify your concerns so that others will understand these important issues.

  • Did the Environmental Commission of Planning Board have any comments? Review these comment letters and write letter of support if appropriate.
  • Does a town ordinances require an environmental assessment for major developments?
  • Review this assessment if it has been submitted?
  • Did your community outline goals or ordinances that are protective of natural resources? Review the site plan for consistency and compliance with these measures.

5. Publicize Your Concerns
There are many ways to publicize your concerns including, written comment letters, testimony, petitions, flyers, websites or news editorials. By publicizing your concerns you may gain more supporters, not only from your neighbors but also from the town officials. Many voices speaking together can have more influence on decisions than an individual!

6. Attend and Participate at Public Hearings
Speaking up or testifying at meetings and public hearings may seem overwhelming, especially when discussions are heated. Though you might feel intimidated, you can and must speak up for your concerns. You are an important representative of the community and have the right to communicate your position! But be ready for some long nights!

Be familiar with the public hearing process
The public may need to register to speak at a hearing. Be sure that your name gets on this list. You can decline to speak later if others have adequately addressed your concerns.

Be an effective speaker
Introduce yourself to the board, and provide your address, and state why the issues concern you. Impacts to public health and safety and to the environment are important and valid concerns.

Stay calm when discussing your concerns. Focus on the issues, not politics or personalities. It is important to be clear and concise in presenting your findings, and it demonstrates that you value their time.

helpful_hint Helpful Hints

Local, weekly papers are a great resource for submitting press releases and media advisories. However, they are not the only resource to consult. Also contact daily papers and television stations, including news stations, local cable networks, and local community bulletin board channels. Contacting a diverse group of papers and stations increases your chances of publication or broadcast.

Plan for the possibility of being interviewed. Prepare key points ahead of time and stick to them. Throughout the interview, relate your comments back to your key points as often as possible. Be concise and engaging. Reporters look for captivating phrases, but will often edit your comments to one sentence. 

Further Resourcesresources

The following resources can assist you in engaging in the public participation process.

  • Speaking Out Guide – the Power of Public Participation, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed, this pocket guide will enable citizens to speak out effectively at public meetings. (Contact the Institute Coordinator for printed copies)
  • 10 Steps for Opposing Bad Development, NJ Audubon Society
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